Category Archives: Other Technology

Other Technology

A review from MusicEdMagic of Practice First

Chad Criswell, Iowa music educator and also editor for many of NAfME's articles on technology in music education, has run for years. I have always enjoyed his work–both in NAfME publications and on MusicEdMagic.

He recently posted a video review of the upcoming PracticeFirst program, which is coming from MusicFirst this fall. Ultimately, it is a green note/red note program that is priced at a low rate ($6 per student) and is multi-platform. Chad put the preview version of the program through its paces….with his daughter!

I love the video–Chad is articulate and friendly (as always) and it is fun to see his daughter collaborating, even with a sticking 3rd valve on the trumpet.

Chad mentions that iOS devices don't run the preview…and this is correct. They are hoping to have an iPad version in the fall. Chad also mentioned that the program requires a minimum of 100 subscribers, which could be problematic for small schools that don't have 100 students in music! I need to check with MusicFirst about that, but I would be extremely surprised if they didn't have a solution for smaller schools. And let's be honest…although we have many big schools in the Midwest, you are as likely to have a small school as a large school when you live in this part of the country.

If you aren't following MusicEdMagic, you should add it to your list of regular sites (or to your RSS feed), and I am going to look forward to future video reviews from Chad!


S-Cubed: A New Approach to Sight Singing

Raise your hand if you have figured out how to teach your students to sight sing. If you are a band or orchestra teacher, don't consider yourself out of this discussion. My high school band teacher was also a singer, and his philosophy was, “If you can sing it, you can play it.” In a perfect world, band and orchestra kids would learn how to sight sing, too, as a part of total musicianship (this is why you had to take sight singing and ear training in college).

But here's the problem with sight singing: there is a disconnect between how we sight sing, and then how we actually learn music. Teachers that “teach” sight singing do so as a disconnected exercise from any other part of the rehearsal. I have been guilty of this, too. Over my years as a teacher, I had mixed commitments to teaching sight singing until a professor on my doctoral committee asked, “What are you doing to teach music literacy in the form of sight singing, dictation, and composition.” At the time, I wasn't doing very much, and my committment changed. Since that time, sight singing has been a part of what I focus on.

I have tried a number of approaches, including reading off the board (my preferred method, as all eyes are up and you can see who isn't participating), using exercises from Melodia, Bruce Phelps Sight Reading Method, and 90 Days to Better Sight Reading, using SmartMusic as a class, and even teaching complete songs via solfége. At best, kids tolerated my efforts, at worst they hated them.

This past fall, I had the chance to work with a Minnesota school district that had adopted a 1:1 Chromebook initative and wanted an outsider's perspective on how those devices could be used and what other resources could be used. In that process, the middle school choir director talked about S-Cubed, a sight singing method devised by Dale Duncan, and how that methodology was not only working with her students, but also helped with discipline in her classes.

Knowing my situation (see my last two posts), I figured it was worth a try. Dale offers the S-Cubed series on “Teachers Pay Teachers” and occasionally offers sale prices. I bought his entire series, and waited for a time in the year to begin working with it. I need to let you know that I am not receiving any financial compensation for mentioning S-Cubed. I am mentioning it because it works.

When you buy S-Cubed, you receive files of all the various PowerPoint lessons Dale has created to teach sight singing. Dale has created many (short) YouTube videos demonstrating how to teach concepts and sharing additional thoughts. He currently works in Georgia where sight singing is still a part of the adjudication of choral contests. His choirs “kick butt” in this process every year. After years of struggling with teaching sight singing, Dale observed other teachers and came up with a process that worked for him, and he is now offering his process to other teachers.

When you see Dale on his YouTube videos, you may be tempted to think, “I'm not Dale. This isn't going to work for me.” What I am sure that Dale would tell you is the same thing I have said to my student teachers–if you try to be me, you are going to fail. To succeed in this job, you have to know who YOU are and to be true to yourself, working through your strengths and learning how to cope with your weaknesses. If you buy S-Cubed, you have to present it AS YOURSELF, and not as Dale. If you do this, it will work for you.

At the core of Dale's process are two things: gameification and technology. He uses available technology (in his case, an Interactive White Board and PowerPoint), and we all know how students (heck, even adults) love playing games. Sight reading is turned into a game (at first), which leads to a systematic process that enables students to sight read without hating the process. In the process, classroom management also becomes easier.

I began using S-Cubed in March, as we have taken a period off mid-year to work on other non-singing projets (composition). Over the past 3 months, we have covered the first five lessons of S-Cubed, while there are 27 complete lessons. I have personally worked through Lesson 6, but even so, I have only used 1/3 of a year's worth of lessons with my class (remember, my classes are on an A/B format, whereas Dale's classes are open enrollment but meet daily).

I don't want to get into the specifics of what you do in each lesson, as Dale's process walks you through every step of the journey, and truthfully, the man deserves to be paid for what he has developed. What I can tell you is that S-Cubed is working, and I can't wait to start my 6th Grade students on Lesson 1, and to pick up with Lesson 6 with my 7th and 8th grade students next year.

Athough Dale includes PowerPoints (which also act as your manual) for each day (there are several days in each lesson), I have been re-creating content to use on my mirrored iPad screen with Keynote. I like to use Keynote's “laser pointer” as I walk students through the tasks which keeps me from signing (yes, signing) with them as many students used to watch me as I signed solfége instead of watching the projected screen. I also like to use APS Tuning Trainer to help my students develop sensitivity to pitch. And I like to use other resouces for quizzes, such as Google Forms (and perhaps Schoology in the future) for assessments (instant grading). I am placing a lot of hope in PracticeFirst next year (at $6 per student) to assess student sight singing as well. I might also have students record themselves on video (we shall see).

What you are going to see with S-Cubed is a systematic approach that exposes kids to solfége names and hand symbols, and then gradually puts those names and hand symbols INTO THE MUSIC. The hand symbols won't be “just” for elementary music teachers with a Kodály background any more. And if you do have elementary teachers that teach with the Kodály hand symbols, let them know you are continuing the work.

Here's the deal…this system is worth its weight in gold, and could be EASILY modified for elementary school or high school (if you choose this method, your high schools would be foolish not to continue using it), or for band/orchestra as well. The complete first method is currently selling for $150, but there are occasionally some sales, and there is no guarantee that prices won't go up, either. You can also buy individual lessons or smaller lesson packs if you don't want to commit to the entire series. Or you can download the free pack just to find out more about the method. Dale also blogs at, and is in the process of developing S-Cubed year 2.

In closing, one of my major tools during the second half of the year has been S-Cubed. Kids buy into it, even stoic 8th grade students that are “too cool.” if you start this at the beginning of the year, your kids will be sight reading before you know it, and you will have massively changed the climate in your program.

Monoprice and Pro Audio

One of my favorite sources for cables and miscellaneous audio products has been Monoprice ( I finally realized–today–that they are into all kinds of pro audio, including guitars and MIDI controllers. Most of my personal pro audio needs have been met through Carvin products, or by simply calling Full Compass Audio in Madison. And if I need local help (Minnesota), I go to Metro Sound and Lighting.

Carvin has traditionally been inexpensive but rugged. From my experience with other Monoprice products, I bet that Monoprice will often beat other vendors with their product–IF–it happens to be in stock.

I have used Monoprice HDMI cables, VGA cables, lightning cables, iPad cases, and more. Everything is inexpensive, but it all works. So it might be worth checking out Monoprice for other pro audio needs.


JamStik+ Kickstarter Campaign Begins Today!

I will begin this post with a simple statement and a link. The JamStik+ began on KickStarter today, and met its goal in just over three hours. The promotion is still underway, and for the first 48 hours, you can buy a JamStik+ for $100 off retail. If you are interested, the link is: Even if you miss the first 48 hours, you can still “buy in” at a lower cost during the campaign.

Now…for the interesting stuff. The JamStik was created in nearby (for me) Minneapolis, with a combined effort of guitar players and engineers (and some mixture of the two), and was funded, in part, by an earlier Indiegogo campaign (2013, which raised about $180,000). The goal from the start was to create a wireless, portable guitar that could act as both a instructional tool for guitar and as a MIDI controller. It was never meant to be a guitar replacement, and the device, which finally shipped in the fall of 2014, did everything that it said it would do. Along with the device, Zivix (the company behind JamStik) came up with new wireless protocols, developed a wireless MIDI device (Puc), and released three iOS apps, one needed to connect the JamStik (JamStik Connect), one as a instructional “game” (JamTutor), and one mixing app (JamMix).

If you bought a JamStik–via Indiegogo or afterwards–you were likely happy with the purchase. It met every promised characteristics. There were a few hard core guitarists that weren’t happy, but again, they were looking for the JamStik to be a guitar replacement, not a tool for instruction or a MIDI tool for guitarists.

A few music educators saw the JamStik and realized its potential for the classroom. It is safe to say that education has ALWAYS been a part of the JamStik, but the vision has been 1:1 versus a classroom setting. Through a combination of fundraising, some help from my school, and some help from Zivix, we have a set of nine JamStiks that I have been able to use with students this year–and although there have been some challenges, I am excited about the potential of the device. The devices are rugged (withstanding abuse), the batteries last for more than a week of use across various classes, and the software works well. Sure, I have some items on the “wish list,” but the updates to the JamStik firmware have been wonderful (changing a D-Pad function to a capo, for example) and the company continues to develop and refine its apps.

This is the part of the KickStarter that might be missed in the campaign…for every 15 JamStik+ units that are sold, 1 will be donated to education. Take a look:

How great is that? Not only can you purchase a JamStik+ at a discount, you can also be a part of a donation to an educational group (this could mean a school, or another educational setting).

Now that it is 2015, there are only 2 potential setbacks to the original JamStik (from ancient 2014), which of course still works perfectly. The first is that Apple released Bluetooth MIDI in iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite, which changes how you interface with a MIDI device. The JamStik+ is a low energy Bluetooth device, so it can connect to Bluetooth MIDI enabled apps (on iOS or Mac) without any background app (or cables). The original JamStik acted as a wireless router, and truthfully, the connection process (although simple) was the hardest part about using a JamStik (In other words, a pain point, but a very, very small one).

The other limitation of the original JamStik was criticism from “real” guitarists, who wanted the device to be able to handle pull-offs and some other guitar techniques. These are not techniques that we use in guitar classes–so they are not really a limitation for anything we do. Zivix answered that concern by adding a pickup to the JamStik, which will result in even greater accuracy and sensitivity, as well as allow for some advanced guitar techniques.

The addition for Bluetooth MIDI is the big point for me–it’s a game changer in simplicity, not only for the JamStik, but for ANY MIDI device. Yes, a Bluetooth MIDI Guitar controller for $199 (KickStarter 48 hour price) is worth the cost of an upgrade (and any price point is worth the investment, if you play guitar).

Do you play guitar and write your own music? Then you need this device and either Progression or Notion on your iPad. You won’t regret it. If you have been thinking about a JamStik–now is the time to buy one. If you believe in the product, how about sponsiring $5, or buying the JamStik “goodies” pack. Either way…act soon. The campaign lasts 42 more days, and although some offers will end, some discounts will be available until the end of the campaign.





Cheap Impostor

I have been very busy with family over the holiday break–but I purposely put our first concert just after the holidays (January 13th this year) to avoid the “clog” of holiday conflicts and to give my students a few more days to live with their music (this approach isn't always successful). As a result, one of the things I have been doing is preparing our printed concert program.

One of the best tools I have found–for Mac (sorry, Windows users) is an app called “Cheap Impostor.” You can find it at This app takes full page PDFs and converts them to booklets of various sizes. It automatically formats your program into a booklet, placing pages where they belong based on the order of your original document. Therefore, even though you might have four pages per “finished” page, all the pages go where they are supposed to be in a booklet. Most of my programs end up with eight or more pages (by the time you add class lists), so this app has been a problem solver.

I like making programs that are the size of a page of paper folded in half (5.5″ x 8.5″), and Cheap Impostor does this. I have also used Cheap Impostor to make master copies of documents where the final program is a 17″x11″ page folded in half.

The massive benefit is that you don't have to mess with columns to create your program (although I do use tables to make my class lists), and when the PDF is converted to a booklet (which can be printed or generated as a PDF), you have great control (if you pay the $35) to adjust the location of the orginal PDF on the page, gutters, and even the zoom level of the orginal PDF.

I can't imagine why anyone that makes a multi-page program wouldn't want to use this program (this is a Mac App, only avaialble online–not the Mac App Store), from music groups to churches.

That's my tip for today–one that is worth noting. At some point, I will also post a demonstration of how I make tabs for my concert programs (having a dotted line between the title and the composer). As far as I can tell, Pages on iOS is not yet able to do this, so my program work is all done on Mac.


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